Monday, September 28, 2009

Madrid to Gibraltar

I left Madrid sprinting through the red light district carrying a plastic bag with a kilo tub of lanoline and another of Vaseline, listening to the fading hisses of prostitutes behind me. It was my last preparatory stop as I left the capital for about a week of travels that I was hoping would culminate in me swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar. I had spent the previous week in Madrid, swimming my ass off at this amazing 50m pool called Pio XII in the north of the city. The pool was relatively empty for most of the late morning and I was able to perfect the 8000meter freestyle set I’ve come to call The Aztec Pyramid. During the evening, I would go with Margarita and others to a different pool, Las Rozas, that was cold and 25m long. It was nice to do a smaller set at night and get back into the water after the mornings of hard training. I was also trying to stuff the final reserve calories into my body that I believed would help to keep me warm while swimming across Gibraltar, and found myself buying boxes of ice-cream sticks and eating them all, or blocks of cheese, tons of cured meats, bread and whatever else I could get my hands on- I was an amazing gourmand. I pieced together a few other things as well, and Margarita and I left Madrid on Friday the 11th with her red Peugot station wagon packed full.

We traveled to the north of Spain before we went to the south, as if a long road-trip through Spain was an essential prelude to swimming across the Strait. We wanted to spend some time amongst the waves, cool waters, and green countryside of northern Spain, and compete in a 2.5km swim across the bay of Santander. Northern Spain reminded me a lot of Humboldt County by how the conifers touch the very lips of the cliffs and the ocean churns below, and in fact the geography of Spain reminds me a lot of California as a whole: green and rainy in the north, and hot and dry in the south. We both finished eighth in the competition, I finished eighth overall and Margarita finished eighth out of the females, but were both swimming really fast. I, at least, felt like I was sprinting a whole 2.5km, but didn’t finish as well as I did in the competitions in Guadalajara, nor did Margarita. The level of open water swimming was higher in the north of Spain than in central Spain, we decided.

I hid the tubs of Vaseline and lanoline behind the drivers seat and tried to forget my fear of getting cold while swimming across the Strait. But every time we unpacked the car to move from one campsite to another, or searched the vehicle for our goggles or towel as we disembarked to another beautiful beach, I would instinctually pick up the tubs of grease to make sure that they were still there, open them, even smell them, and question whether these mixed together would create that layer of blubber I have always dreamt of. Marga would catch me and remind me to no pensarlo, but this great unknown and deep fear of swimming the Strait without a wetsuit and getting too cold to continue kept resurfacing, and not only with those tubs of grease, but every time I thought of the swim. I wasn’t sure how I would do the swim, either in a wetsuit or without, until the very morning that I set off to swim towards Morocco.

We drove from the Cantabria Sea of northern Spain to Seville, the capital of Andalusia, on Tuesday the 15th. Everybody told us that it would be such a long drive, but it was much shorter than any of the many times I’ve traversed the length of California either on a Greyhound bus or with some member of my family. I was reminded, again, that the American conception of space is much different than the European. You can drive across Spain in a 8 hours and in California you’ll only get from San Diego to San Francisco. And for Americans, spending 8 hours in a car is somewhat of a normal road trip, while in Spain it would be excessive or a paliza.

Margarita’s aunt Incarnacion and her uncle Ignacio welcomed us into their home that night and showed us around Seville the next day. The city was beautifully vibrant and full of orange trees and jasmine vines and reminded me of Tunis. I saw myself there for more than the day we spent, and it seems like I’ll be returning there to talk with officials in Andalusia about the possibility of getting financial and media support from them for the swim I’m trying to put together for next year; the Moroccan, Spanish and American team of swimmers that will cross the Strait of Gibraltar twice as a relay.

Arriving in Tarifa, the southern most town of peninsular Spain, I took a big sigh of relief to be in the place that I had been imagining for so long. Tarifa looks directly onto to the Strait of Gibraltar, with the Mediterranean on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Strong winds prevail in this region, which make it the mecca of kite and wind surfing. Tarifa is actually a strange, but vibrant, mix of surf culture and a town lost between two places- like a gas station in the middle of the Arizona desert, flashing bright neon lights out of the expanse of red rock. They say that the winds are so strong in Tarifa that the people from there have been driven slightly crazy. I found that the people there very nice and not crazy.

We stayed at a nice camping center right on the coast about 6km north of Tarifa, secluded from the winds my a grove of coastal pines scattered throughout the campsite. The site was really nice, with hot showers and clean bathrooms, and also very close to town. We had arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and on Thursday morning I met with Rafael, the owner/director of Associacion Cruce a Nado Estrecho del Gibraltar. Rafael is a busy man that, alongside organizing this international swim, he also runs a whale watching service. Our meeting was brief, and he basically said that the conditions to swim the strait were not very good and that the earliest possible day to swim the strait was Saturday, however there was an American and a Croatian swimmer that were waiting to cross, and if they went on Saturday, then I would swim on Sunday. So Margarita and I spent the next few days touring the region, going on long walks along the Atlantic coast amongst shore bound algae and the ever present sight of Morocco across those waters. It was crazy and intense to have the African continent on that horizon and to be thinking constantly that I would be swimming there in just a few days. At times the shore seemed close and assessable, but when the winds picked up in the late afternoon, the horizon filled with a faint cloud layer that made the shore look infinitely far away. In the end, I was thinking about the swim too much. I was worried that I wouldn’t complete it because I felt like I had all of Spain supporting me and didn’t want to fail. Swimming in the windblown waters helped to cool my nerves.

1 comment:

  1. I would go with Margarita and others to a different pool,Daniel